• Shayna Sheinfeld, Ph.D.

Liminality and the Job Market

Updated: Mar 16, 2019

“A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.”

–Brutus, to Caesar, Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare


The Ides of March—March 15—is memorable because Julius Caesar was brutally murdered on this date. The day has a different significance if you are in academia.

If you’re waiting for responses from graduate schools, at least in the U.S., this is generally the expiration date—if you haven’t received an acceptance by now, it’s probably a no-go for next year.

And if you are on the academic job market you more than likely know by this date whether or not you have a position for next year. Yes, there are still some things being posted—often visiting positions, perhaps a few outstanding applications or post-docs. But for the majority of us, we know at this point what we will—or will not—be doing next fall.

If you’re in the majority then you will find yourself without the elusive tenure track position. Yes, you are in the majority, although the silence on social media (a decidedly curated space) might suggest that you are the only one.

Being an academic without a position lined up feels…well, it feels terrible. The imposter syndrome hits hard. You have all sorts of doubts about whether or not you are any good, whether your research or your teaching or your publications are good enough, or numerous enough, or… you get the idea.

But perhaps you aren’t quite ready to let it go, to give it all up, although it often feels like it is an all-or-nothing endeavor. When you are in this position, you may feel liminal: you may feel like you are both an academic and not, perhaps successful at what you have accomplished and not successful because of you have no current academic prospects (or at least not the ones you thought you would have). These feelings are normal and are becoming more common in the current economy.

This is not to say that your feelings are not unique to your situation—they are, just like your unique situation is yours only. However, there are many other people who are experiencing similar feelings of liminality within academia. You may be asking yourself questions of whether you should keep trying on the job market, you may wonder if you are a failure within your academic field, you may be worried what will happen if you have no institutional affiliation—what happens if you end up with that “Independent Scholar” after your name when you apply for jobs next year or submit applications. You may be concerned about paying bills next year, and whether you should just throw in the towel and attempt to land another type of job that includes a living wage and benefits rather than adjuncting or taking out more loans or living off a partner or parent.

You may be hoping that I have a solution for you now. Unfortunately I don’t. But I do want you to know that you are not alone in all of this. The majority of Ph.D.s are not getting tenure track jobs. This is not a meritocracy—it is not only those who “deserve” to get the jobs who are getting them. It is a combination of good work, luck, personality, and that elusive (and upsetting) “fit.” There is no real rhyme or reason to why you may not have been selected over the next candidate. Why you did not get even one interview, or why you got five campus visits and no offer. Many of the decisions that get made about whether you or someone else lands an interview or job are out of your control—you could perform perfectly and have fantastic credentials and wonderful publications and great teaching evaluations and great potential…and easily not be offered a position.

So much is not within your control, and that is hard. It feels like if you just try harder, work harder, publish more, get better evaluations, write a (another?!) book, etc., that you can make it happen. But there is a good chance that more of these things will not make any difference.

There are things that are within your control.

You can spend the mental/emotional time exploring whether you want to remain in traditional academia, and if not, what your other options are.

You can choose to find ways to remain active within your discipline even while exploring and pursuing other options.

You can leave academia. This is a valid option and you are not a failure by doing so—the system has failed you. You have wonderful skills.

You can pursue options that keep you “in play,” such as adjuncting. But do so in full knowledge of the financial and ethical problems associated with contingent faculty (many of which fall on the institution, not as you as an individual).

You can choose to remain liminal.

For all of these, you need support to remind yourself that you are not crazy for thinking about leaving (or for not thinking about it), you are not a terrible scholar or teacher, you are not alone. I recommend you find a good counselor or therapist. I also highly recommend that you seek out a good academic coach—such as myself—who can assist you with thinking through all your career/life options, with feelings of failure or fraud, and with working through your current job market material.

So on this Ides of March, remember that you are not alone, and you are worthy.

To schedule a free 30-minute consultation with me, e-mail me at shayna@shaynasheinfeld.com.

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